The three days of stayaway protests, called by the Campaign for Democracy, were expected to be a repeat of the 12-14 August protests that shut down most of south-western Nigeria and severely disrupted the nation's commercial centre, Lagos. The military government's announcement late on Monday of a 900 per cent rise in petrol prices was expected to fuel inflation, now running at more than 100 per cent per year, and unrest.
The Campaign for Democracy, grouping 30 human rights, student and women's groups, has demanded that Gen Babangida hand over power to Chief Moshood Abiola, the winner of the cancelled 12 June presidential elections who is abroad seeking to drum up support for his cause in Western capitals.
The 3.5 million-strong National Labour Congress and the oil workers' union, Nupeng, have vowed to begin strikes later this week if President Babangida does not hand over power to a constitutional government on Friday, as promised. The threatened strike by Nupeng was particularly worrying to the military government because Nigeria earns at least 90 per cent of its foreign exchange from petroleum exports.
The rising tide of pressure has forced Gen Babangida to agree to leave office, but there was still no word on what role he or his ruling National Defence and Security Council would play in the new set-up. The interim government was expected to rule Nigeria until the end of next year and organise new elections. Gen Babangida talked late into Monday night and most of yesterday with his senior military commanders in an effort to gain support for his proposed interim government. Foreign diplomats and pro-democracy activists said the round-the-clock meetings indicated that Gen Babangida was facing 11th-hour opposition to his plans. 'If they supported the proposal, he would have moved by now,' said Olisa Agbakoba, president of the Civil Liberties Organisation, one of the main human-rights groups backing today's protests.
Moves in the Senate and the House of Representatives to win the legislators' endorsement of the interim government have so far failed. The military government has attempted to woo the National Assembly, hoping its approval would prevent the West from tightening limited sanctions imposed after the June elections were cancelled.
Civil servants said yesterday they were not being paid, in an attempt by the government to stop them participating in the strikes and from following thousands of other Nigerians who have fled Lagos to their home regions out of fear of an outbreak of violence. The unrest has paralysed industry in Lagos and disrupted trade links with the rest of the country.
The expected leader of the new interim government was Chief Ernest Shonekan, who for the past eight months has headed a largely powerless civilian 'transitional council'. Chief Shonekan is, like Chief Abiola, a Yoruba from the city of Abeokuta. But his tenure as council chairman has been marked by a failure to control corruption and overspending by the military, descrediting him in the eyes of Nigeria's foreign creditors and many Nigerians.
'The issue is not a transition from military to civilian rule, but a transition from military to democratic rule,' said Mr Agbakoba. 'It cannot be civilians just coming in to make the place look good.'